I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Robert Scragg’s What Falls Between the Cracks, which is published in paperback by Allison & Busby on 20 September, and to be able to share an extract with you.
Did she slip through the cracks, or was she pushed?
When a severed hand is found in an abandoned flat, Detective Jake Porter and his partner Nick Styles are able to DNA match the limb to the owner, Natasha Barclay, who has not been seen in decades. But why has no one been looking for her? It seems that Natasha’s family are the people who can least be trusted.
Delving into the details behind her disappearance and discovering links to another investigation, a tragic family history begins to take on a darker twist. Hampered by a widespread fear of a local heavy, as well as internal politics and possible corruption within the force, Porter and Styles are digging for answers, but will what they find ever see the light of day?
You can find the first chapter of What Falls Between the Cracks on the Allison & Busby website, and I’m thrilled to share chapter two with you!
Natasha Barclay was a ghost, figuratively speaking, at least. Between them they couldn’t find a single mention of her dated past 1983. Her flat was one of fifteen in a five-storey late Victorian building near Walthamstow, in North East London, built originally as an orphanage. The airy high ceilings and ornate cornices had reminded Porter a little of his own place, although he guessed his flat could fit inside these twice over.
They left three uniformed officers at the building to go door to door with the remaining eleven residents to see if anyone knew Natasha Barclay. It wasn’t out of the question that she was just a private person, and didn’t make small talk with the neighbours. The interviews with the first three residents, particularly the one who’d lived there for over twenty years, didn’t sit well with him. Sure, people led busy lives, but for those lives to have never intersected with as much as a neighbourly nod while leaving or entering the building in over two decades seemed highly unlikely. Then there was the eerie air of dormancy that hung over the place. The dated decor and coat of dust that cloaked every surface had given him the feeling that the apartment had been slumbering for some time before the leaking freezer had rudely interrupted.
They headed back to the station at Paddington Green, along Edgware Road, lined with a cultural melting pot of takeaways, competing amongst themselves to ruin your waistline. Porter’s window was halfway down, spices and fried chicken wafting in on the breeze, making his stomach growl in protest. Compressed storefronts jostled for space, offering everything from Persian carpets to a bet on the three o’clock at Newmarket. Blocks of flats had been built up behind them over the years, peering over the tops of the two- and three-storey buildings on the main road like nosy neighbours. Typical mid-twentieth-century fare, blocky and functional. The station itself wasn’t any prettier. The jutting window ledges around each floor made Porter think of the Stickle Bricks he had as a child.
As soon as they got inside, Styles disappeared into the small kitchen area, returning armed with two mugs of steaming black coffee. Porter realised he’d been staring at a smudge of dirt on the window and blinked his eyes quickly to snap himself out of it.
‘I’ve told you before, you’re wasting your time batting your eyelashes at me. I’m a happily married man,’ said Styles. After a few years working together it was impossible not to be aware of his partner’s little quirks. He jokingly referred to this one sometimes as Porter’s ‘Spidey sense’ after the Marvel comic-book hero’s preternatural ability to read situations and intuit danger. He’d seen it happen on more than one occasion where Porter had progressed a seemingly dead-end case by zoning out like that and joining dots that no one else had spotted.
‘You can’t blame a guy for trying.’ Porter took a cautious sip of the coffee before putting the cup on the desk.
‘Any flashes of inspiration, then?’ asked Styles as he settled into the seat at his desk that adjoined his partner’s.
Porter shook his head. ‘No, no, ladies first this time. You got a theory?’
‘Kind of, actually,’ said Styles. ‘Well, more of a question really,’ he corrected himself. ‘The food in the freezer – that make sense to you?’
‘I was a little preoccupied with the hand to have much of an appetite.’
‘I wasn’t fixing to make myself a snack,’ said Styles. ‘I’m talking about the packaging. I’m assuming you missed that part?’
‘Afraid so. Go on then, enlighten me.’
‘The whole scene was just odd,’ Styles began. ‘The clothes and decor you could put down to individual taste. The dust and cobwebs might just mean she’s been living somewhere else for a while, maybe with a boyfriend. The boxes in the freezer make no sense, though.’
‘How do you mean?’ asked Porter.
‘The packaging,’ said Styles. ‘It was as dated as the rest of the place. Not that I’m an expert in the field of graphic design by any stretch, but it looked ancient compared to what you see in shops today. None of it had the nutritional info on either, and that’s been stamped all over everything for years now.’
Porter raised his eyebrows as he realised what Styles was getting at. ‘So you’re saying you think no one’s been in for years rather than months?’
Styles shrugged. ‘I know stuff keeps for longer in there, but who keeps food for that long?’
‘So we’re saying nobody’s been in there since she last opened her mail?’
‘Maybe, maybe not,’ said Styles. ‘I’m pretty certain nobody’s lived there for a long time. Whether anyone has had a reason to be there or not is another matter.’ Porter opened his mouth to reply, but was stopped in his tracks when his phone started to ring.
‘Hold that thought,’ he said, holding up a finger at Styles as he took the call. ‘This is Porter.’
‘Porter? It’s Will Leonard. You asked me to call as soon as we had something.’
‘Hey, Will. What have you got?’
‘It’s only a preliminary overview, but hopefully it’ll help get you started. The prints from the hand are consistent with the few clear ones we managed to find at the flat. I wasn’t sure what we’d find with it being like a museum in there, but we got lucky. We pulled some fairly clear ones from fatty deposits around the oven, and on and around the make-up products in the bathroom, so it’s reasonable to assume that both they and the hand they come from belong to somebody who lived there. I’m going to run them now and see if we get a match.’
‘OK, thanks, Will. Anything else?’
‘We’ll be doing DNA tests on hair from the hairbrush and a swab of the toothbrush to check against tissue from the hand and the blood from the living room. Results should be back in a day or so. There’s nothing so far to suggest more than one person living there. There were a few smudges that look like they used to be prints in the other rooms, but not as well preserved as the ones in the kitchen.’
‘Good stuff. Let me know when you get the DNA tests back.’ Porter was about to sign off but as an afterthought he mentioned Styles’s theory about the food. Leonard promised to look into it and ended the call. Porter gave Styles the highlights of the conversation.
‘What you said, about the food. I hadn’t twigged to that. You’re right, it does seem weird.’
‘Oh, I’m not just a pretty face,’ said Styles. ‘What’s the plan, then, boss?’
‘First things first, we need to find out what family she has. My gut tells me that it’s most likely her hand we found. I checked with one of the lads working the scene, though, and the amount of blood and distribution on the carpet isn’t consistent with it being removed there, so it begs the questions of where and why.’
‘Speaking of the flat, it would have been a fairly pricey area to live in even back in the eighties. How does a young woman living alone afford somewhere like that?’ asked Styles.
‘Good question,’ said Porter, reaching for his coffee again. ‘You look into the property and check out her finances. See if anything shows up apart from the account with Barclays. I’ll see if I can track down her parents.’
They agreed to meet up again as soon as the officers responsible for interviewing the neighbours returned, and Styles slid his own chair sideways on its casters to park himself at his desk. Porter drained the lukewarm dregs of his coffee and got to work. He hoped tracing the parents wouldn’t prove too tricky, although these conversations were the ones he hated the most. Being the bearer of potentially bad tidings was something he’d had to do more times than he cared to remember, but he’d never get used to it. He remembered it from the other side of the scenario; seeing the blurred shape visible through his front door. Not realising that all that separated him from the blow they were about to deal to his world was an inch-thick rectangle of wood and glass. The struggle to remember what life had been like before he opened the door to see the police officers outside. The bad news they carried carved into every crease on their forehead.
Best case, Natasha Barclay had been the victim of an assault, and worst case her injuries may have been fatal. Without immediate medical attention, she could easily have bled out after her hand was removed. The fact that at least part of the attack looked to have taken place inside her home meant there was a good chance she may have known her assailant. What Porter couldn’t quite reconcile, though, was that if she was alive and well, why nobody, including her parents, had bothered helping to look after her flat. On the flip side, if something more sinister had happened, why had nobody reported her missing? The last thought that struck him as he leant forward to start the task of locating her parents was a little less palatable, but one that would need careful consideration nonetheless. What if those closest to her knew she was missing but had a vested interest in hiding that fact?
Many thanks to Ailsa Floyd at Allison & Busby for the invitation to join the blog tour, and for my copy of What Falls Between the Cracks which I can’t wait to read!
Make sure you check out the other stops on the blog tour!